First came the chile relleno, and then came the epiphany.
I grew up in the 1970’s in a central Pennsylvania family that, atypically, ate a lot of Indian and Southeast Asian foods in addition to the rather died-in-the-wool American fare that was popular in our community. In addition to jello salads and meat loaf we were treated to Vietnamese minced fish balls and Indian Umpa with Cream of Wheat, potatoes and peas, thanks to the friendships my parents forged with new town residents. But when it came to Mexican cuisine, we, like so many others of our generation and geography, were pretty much stuck with the taco. Don’t get me wrong: taco night was an occasion to behold with a big plate of warm corn tortillas glistening with hot oil and a half-dozen taco fillings including ground beef, chopped tomatoes, grated cheese, onions, sour cream, and salsa. I loved taco night. Which is probably why I loved it when we finally got a Chi-Chi’s. It was there that I had my first chile relleno, stuffed with cheese, batter-dipped and deep-fried. This was “new” Mexican, and it was tasty.
Fast forward a number of years to New York City the 1990’s. As I was cutting my teeth in the advertising business I was also sampling my way around town, happily trying new restaurants and cuisines. Someone recommended Zarela’s, where Zarela Martinez was cooking the true Mexican food of northern Mexico. Regional, rich, and certainly NOT the Tex-Mex take on Mexican to which I was accustom. I ordered the chiles rellenos and was blown away to find them stuffed with a sweet/savory filling of shredded chicken, dried fruit, onions and olives, bathed in a complex tomato sauce without a hit of batter dipping or frying. And the pomegranate seeds were such a nice touch that I don’t think I’ve been tempted to order the “old” version since.
I promptly got myself a copy of “Food From My Heart,” in which Ms. Martinez tells as much a story about HER Mexico and food memories as she shares recipes. I was thrilled that it includes a recipe for poblanos rellenos which became such a signature dish at her now-closed restaurant in New York City that at one time she made it for Julia Child (and shared the recipe) on the PBS show “In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs.” The version she made for Julia used shredded pork, but I’m still partial to the chicken that I first tried years ago.
Well, poblanos are now in season. My daughters and I just picked several nice ones at Cherry Grove Organic Farm outside of Princeton, NJ, this past week, and I decided it was time to try the chiles rellenos recipe with them. This was also a bit of an experiment in tasting and in plating…and when all was said and done this was one instance in which the things that made it on to the kids plates vs. the parents plates ended up being somewhat different. Those poblano chiles…parents only. But all of us enjoyed the lovely chicken picadillo.
Follow the link above to the full recipe on the PBS website and you’ll be very happy. My only adjustments after years of making this recipe include less butter (a scant 1/4 cup vs. the full stick in Zarela’s version), using the afore-mentioned shredded chicken vs. pork, and plating with a slightly spicier sauce that takes less time. Here’s how I made my tomato-chipotle sauce:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 14-ounce can of whole tomatoes in juice (not seasoned)
3-4 chilpotle peppers from a 7-ounce can of chilpotle peppers in adobo sauce, plus 1 tablespoon adobo sauce
1/2 cup heavy cream
Put the entire contents of the can of tomatoes into a blender and purée along with the chilpotle peppers and approximately 1 tablespoon of the adobo sauce.
Heat oil in a sauce pan. When hot, add the pureed tomatoes and chilpotle peppers. Reduce by about 1/4, or until slightly thickened. Turn heat to medium low and add the cream. Continue to simmer, taking care not to bring to a boil.
Serve with the chiles rellenos and a side of rice.
Parent rating: Four-and-a-half stars. Spicy, savory, sweet — an all-around lovely meal worthy of company or Sunday supper with the kids. The spicy quotient should be adjusted according to taste though, and you never quite know whether your poblanos will be hot or mild.
Kid rating: Three-and-a-half stars. Rice was the first thing consumed on the plate. Our daughters got the chicken picadillo but no spicy tomato-chilpotle sauce. They also got cucumbers — gotta love cucumbers. They are green, crunchy, and rounded out the kid version of the meal. Daughter 1 finished her meal. Daughter 2 hit “cranky time” somewhere around 3/4 way through dinner and we let it go at that. All in all, I was proud that they tried — and liked — the picadillo since it is a real mix of ingredients. We’re making progress!